PFL invested in bringing familiar sports context to the fight game

The PFL uses a cage, like other MMA promotions, but beyond he look, it operates very differently. Photo courtesy of PFL

According to co-founder Donn Davis, the Professional Fighters League was born on July 11, 2016 -- the day the UFC sold for more than $4 billion.

Less than six months after that deal was made public, the venture capitalist and several other Washington investors purchased the mixed martial arts promotion World Series of Fighting, rebranded it as the PFL and invested $25 million into the venture. Their goal was to offer a nontraditional model of MMA. Rather than rely on matchmaking, PFL fighters would compete in a regular-season and playoff format -- for a $1 million grand prize in each weight class.

It's a familiar model for fans of most sports, but it goes against the grain in MMA. It removes a promoter's ability to book ratings-friendly matchups any time they pop up. And to Davis and his partners, that's the appeal.

"We saw a huge MMA market -- 300 million fans -- that has really only been given one product," Davis told ESPN. "And that product is based on the 70-year-old boxing product: Two people show up, there's a lot of hype but there's no context. There's no narrative. No meritocracy. It was lacking that sport element.

"Most people who watch MMA on a Saturday night don't really know what's going on and can't identify with the fighters because there is no context. Our hope is to give people a format where they can come to know the fighters through their journeys in a true meritocracy. And there will be more stars because of that, more stories for people to love."

PFL launched its inaugural season in June, consisting of 72 male athletes across six weight categories. Its first playoff starts Oct. 5 in New Orleans, and will wrap up by Oct. 20. During the regular season, points were awarded based on results. The top eight fighters in each division have been placed into brackets. The quarterfinal and semifinal matchups will take place on the same night, consisting of two- and three-round fights, respectively. The finals are scheduled for Dec. 31 in New York City.

The 2018 season aired on NBC Sports and Facebook. Both broadcasting deals were for one year only, and PFL is currently negotiating its home for 2019 and beyond.

According to MMAPayout.com, PFL ratings hovered between 100,000 and 150,000 viewers per show on NBC Sports. Those are not overwhelming numbers, but multiple PFL executives claimed the primary goal in 2018 was not necessary ratings -- it was vindication of the product. And CEO Peter Murray, who says the brand reached 10 million new viewers between television, digital and social this season, believes that happened.

"The validation of the format has come from the overall response of fighters and fans," Murray said. "Frankly, for me, it happened right at PFL 1, when we made ESPN's [SportsCenter] Top 10 list right out of the gate. It was tied to the action, tied to the athletes, tied to the competition."

Further vindication came in the form of a $28 million investment last month from a group that includes comedian Kevin Hart and motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Those funds will be used on developing production value of live events and potential roster expansion, among other things. PFL president Carlos Silva says the promotion has had interest from established fighters outside its roster, looking to possibly compete in the 2019 season.

As far as the athletes themselves are concerned, it seems there has been a genuinely positive response. Even someone like Brian Foster, a welterweight who withdrew from the season after his first bout because he was unable to secure a fight license for the finals in New York due to medical reasons, says he prefers this format to the traditional model.

"You get more exposure this way; you're fighting more frequently," Foster said. "The tournament format is always sketchy, because guys will fall out -- sometimes for reasons with the commission, like in my situation. But what I always say is that at the end of this situation, you are gonna have the toughest fighter left standing. That's just the way it is. He doesn't just have to battle the other guys. He has to battle injuries and his brain telling him it's not a good idea to go back out there and fight twice in one night. You fight yourself as much as the other guys in a format like this."

Foster brings up a great point, which will only be answered over the course of the playoff schedule: How well will the field hold up under the demand of two fights in one night in October and a finale in December?

Silva likens the playoffs to "MMA's March Madness," which has a ring to it (especially when you add a $1 million prize at the end). But it's fair to suggest PFL will need a little luck when it comes to its victorious fighters staying healthy enough to get through the finals.

If that happens, PFL could certainly make noise on Dec. 31, with the image of six athletes holding $1 million checks. Whether it's enough noise to carve out a long-term space in the MMA landscape, time will tell.

"It's about giving fans choices," Davis said. "Fans don't buy one kind of bottled water. Fans don't want one kind of TV show. And I don't think fans will only watch one kind of MMA. It's just that so far, they've only been given one option: one-off events with matchups chosen by a promoter. That's great. Enjoy that. But we're giving you a new option.

"I think the 300 million fans MMA has, over the next five years, some will watch both options, some will watch one or the other. Our job is to build innovative companies with a disruptive approach. Generally, when you give people a real interesting choice, things evolve."